Four Years Ago Today

Today, February 11th, marks the 4-year anniversary that we found out about Hana’s heart. I think about that day, 4 years ago when our lives changed forever. Hana had a mild cough that had persisted over two months, and was progressively sounding worse, but not too bad. About a week before this, I was holding her and she suddenly vomited all over. Then it happened again a few days later and again a few days after that and then she was vomiting once a day or in the middle of the night. Then, sometimes, she started getting fussy while nursing and would stop after a couple of minutes and I remember her forehead felt sweaty. A couple days before she took a three hour nap which was so unusual for my difficult napper of a baby. But it was the vomiting that worried us most. The vomiting just seemed like it took a lot out of her. The night before, she vomited right when Paul got home from work and she looked terrible. She was very, very quiet and pale and I think she actually looked scared. Something didn’t feel right. But a mind has a way of explaining things away and logic has a way of quieting fears even when they should be heard.

Over the next few days, we would recall these things again and again for doctor after doctor. They would nod their heads knowingly, they had heard this story countless times. It’s a little uncanny how similar the stories are, when you’ve heard enough of them. Of course, parents think it’s something else. Even most pediatricians would think it’s something else, because it almost always is. But not this time and luckily, we got a pediatrician who wasn’t convinced it was something else. I remember hearing the nervousness in her voice when she told me to take Hana downstairs for a chest x-ray. I remember the x-ray tech looking at me after he took the image. He was solemn but said nothing. He knew that image didn’t look right. I remember the urgency in the doctor’s voice a little later when she called me back because the x-ray showed an enlarged heart. I remember crying on the phone when I called Paul to tell him. I knew an enlarged heart was bad, I just didn’t know any more than that. I remember back at the medical center, about twenty minutes later, the echo tech and the cardiologist staring intently at the image of Hana’s heart on that screen. The cardiologist asked me to wait in a room, not an exam room, just a nearby room until she came back. People had been rushing around and talking in low voices. I don’t even remember exactly what the pediatric cardiologist said – something like “she’s in heart failure”, “we don’t know yet how bad”, “yes your husband should come right away”, “yes you will definitely need to cancel your trip to Hawaii in two days”, “she will probably be in the hospital at least two weeks”, “she will be transferred out to UCSF”, “there is still a lot we don’t know… ”

I was surprised when the pediatric cardiologist walked with us next door to the Emergency Department at the hospital. She stayed until they had Hana hooked up to the monitor, my first of many, many experiences with this. She had explained that an ambulance would come as soon as possible to transfer Hana to UCSF hospital across town. It was the brand new hospital, only opened one week. The pediatrician came into the emergency department to talk with us too. She was just checking in with us and she gave me her personal cell phone number to call her if I ever had any question, I could call her at any time. I remember Paul getting there and staying with Hana so I could go outside to make a phone call (the reception in the emergency department is terrible. I remember telling my parents what was going on – it was an enlarged heart, they were transferring her to the big, prestigious hospital across town, we had to cancel our trip to Hawaii and could they let my sister know (we were going to Hawaii to visit her). My parents were sitting in their car in the parking lot outside of a restaurant, waiting to go inside to celebrate my grandmother’s 96th birthday. My dad asked if I needed my mom (the pediatric nurse) to fly out. I felt like a child – a scared, lost child who needed her mom. I always think “no” to those kinds of questions. Can Paul and I handle this ourselves? Of course we can. But should we? I croaked out a “yes”.

I remember seeing Judy and Neal through the doors of the Emergency Department. They were standing looking into our room. They would take our dog Poppy. I remember being relieved that someone local was near and ready to help. I remember watching Paul walk out of the Emergency Department with that empty stroller, so he could take it just four blocks back to our home and then meet us at UCSF. I remember texting a couple of people on the ambulance ride to the new hospital. My friend Lisa and my friend Rose.¬† Hana was asleep in her carseat in the ambulance. I remember arriving at some back entrance to the hospital and going up to the CICU into a room no other patient had yet occupied in this new hospital. The staff was still trying to find the supply room. I remember the attending physician happened to be the head of pediatric cardiology at the hospital. She and a neonatologist worked to get IVs started and maybe an arterial line? Hana was crying and fussy and wouldn’t be still. They were having a very, very hard time even to get an IV going. Paul and I were bent over her bed for hours showing Hana her favorite book from home. We talked and whispered and sang and tried to keep her calm. It seemed very important, whatever the cardiologist and the neonatologist were doing. I remember the cardiologist taking out her phone and calling her friend to tell her she wasn’t going to make it to the big birthday dinner of their other friend that night, she had to stay at the hospital. Eventually they gave up and decided to go with the two IVs. We were supposed to rest. I remember looking down at Hana in a hospital bed and in a hospital gown with all the lines hooked up to her thinking, “How did this happen so fast? How did we wake up this morning thinking our baby was just a little sick?” I was exhausted and I wanted to sleep and yet, I didn’t. How could I sleep when my baby was like this? I remember thinking, “I hope this is the worst day of my life.” I think deep down I already knew the worst was yet to come.

That was February 11, 2015.

The flood gates had been opened and water gushed so fast I didn’t know if I would ever be able to get another breath again. The next morning, the same pediatric cardiologist, the head of her department, sat us in her office and told us that Hana was going to need a heart transplant and she was transferring her to Stanford. We were stunned speechless. Hana seemed to really decline rapidly. I remember my mom, the pediatric nurse who had spent years in the trenches of a pediatric intensive care unit, arrive that morning and within minutes she was calling my dad to fly out too – things were much worse than she thought. I don’t remember too much of that day – they were going to send Hana to the cath lab but then decided it was too risky. They decided to intubate her. We sat in the parent lounge trying to eat food our friends Lisa and Chris had brought. They got Hana ready for her life flight to Stanford. A helicopter? Really? The staff prepped us for how different it would be at Stanford. The helicopter pilot questioned me on how suitable I would be to sit in the helicopter with him. I said goodbye to Paul and my mom who were driving down to Stanford. I got into the helicopter. It floated up into the night sky. The take off was complicated because it was the first time they had transferred a patient out of this new hospital and also the air space was restricted because President Obama was arriving at San Francisco airport. Twelve minutes later we landed at Stanford. The rushed her inside and into the CVICU where a team of people were ready. I stayed out of the room because it was too crowded and busy, there was no place for the mom right now. It was late and it was otherwise very, very quiet on the unit. One of the cardiology fellows pulled up a chair for me outside the room. I sat in it and my whole body ached, it ached so bad I would have a hard time getting to sleep that night, after not sleeping for two days.

I remember trying to make a deal with God, knowing full well that it didn’t work that way. I remember thinking, “This only happens to people in the movies and those movie-parents are amazing and inspiring. Paul and I aren’t that special. We are not those parents. How is that we are now those parents that are doing this?” But our lives changed and our hearts and our minds. And those flood gates that opened? They never close, maybe they just trickle, but they never close. And that sigh of relief at the end of the day? It never comes. And that dream of “I’m going to do this crazy, hard, scary, intense thing of having and raising a child that I will love like I never knew I could love”? That dream is changed, forever. All those thoughts I had about raising a child and what it was to be a parent, they changed forever on February 11th. I can never “unknow” what I know now. There is a peace of mind that I will never know again. I struggled with that for a long time. But now I don’t even remember what it feels like to have it any more. The only thing certain is Uncertainty.

But there is more love than you know. I asked for it, I did. For once in my life, I asked for it because I knew this was more than just me and Paul and Hana. This was about people and community and humanity and love and even more. I think of Kelly and David and their son, Leo, who would become Hana’s heart donor, her angel. I think of their sacrifice and pain and choice and their love. In the face of pain, there is still love.

Thank you all, for being part of that. You have been an incredible force of goodwill and love.

And what about today, February 11, 2019? Hana is going to Forest School and swim and dance. She underwent some neuropsych testing this fall and everything came back great. They wanted to test her because she has been on cardiac bypass which can cause oxygen deprivation and sometimes they see some delays or learning disabilities. We will test her again in three years. We have been very busy. We toured some schools for potentially starting Kindergarten in the fall, although we are still inclined to wait another year. Hana is eligible to start, although she will just be turning 5 on the first day of school.

What we are battling now are Hana’s GI issues. She has had chronic diarrhea since the summer and over the past week she has been increasingly complaining of stomach pain. As a parent, it’s hard to swallow. No one wants to see their child suffering. We did some food elimination diets including dairy free and then two weeks of no sweet (no sugar, no fruit, no artificial sweetener) but nothing helped. Hana complied like a champ. She is so good, it makes my heart melt. So, now we are left blaming her one immunosuppression medication – Cellcept. There has been talk about switching her to another medication but we had to decide a little while ago if we wanted to make that switch and we decided to wait. If we switch her medication we have to do it 4-6 weeks before her next biopsy so that they can check for any rejection with a new immune suppressing drug. Hana’s next biopsy is in a couple days on Wednesday, February 13th. So now, we will have to wait until the summer when she has her next biopsy. That is, of course, assuming that Wednesday’s biopsy results will show No Rejection and she will not need another biopsy until the summer. So, maybe we should have done the switch. I don’t know.

Please keep Hana in your thoughts and prayers on Wednesday for her biopsy. We will update you when we get results!

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Hana on the beach in Hawaii, where she said, “but I want to swim naked in the ocean!” but then she learned about jellyfish, sadly.
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Smiling so big her eyes closed in excitement (of standing next to a waterfall!).
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She loves riding Aunt Christine’s horse!
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Its fun wearing mom’s flip flops.
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A tree swing a Free Forest School!
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Hiking in Hana’s favorite park – Glen Canyon!
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Examining the tree log she wants very much to cross over the ravine.
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Doing her own “face painting”.

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Halloween!

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She still loves carousels!
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She loves baking! We did this pretend cake when she couldn’t eat anything sweet.
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First time at the symphony (to watch and hear Mary Poppins).
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She imitating the seal!
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Corrina and Hana at Tinkergarten

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The Donor Family Letter

Today, when my phone rang and when I saw the phone number come up, a little gulp of fear surged through me. It was Hana’s Nurse Practitioner and I was sure she was calling with biopsy results except that it seemed way to early, at 10am, to already have results. Nancy sounded cheerful and immediately said she had more good news. Hana’s biopsy result was a 1a, which is essentially no rejection. I felt incredibly relieved and said “whew!” Out loud. Her next biopsy is not until early May. We will begin to taper her steroids. We also discussed flu precautions, which has me slightly terrified this year. They had no additional precautions than the ones I’ve already implemented. Anyhow, we have reason to celebrate such good biopsy results!

On to the big news that Nancy gave me yesterday. After discussing Hana’s biopsy yesterday Nancy’s said she had more good news and then she said, “You have a letter from the donor family.” And then she handed me a plain white envelope, very thin, which appeared to have one sheet of a typed letter inside. I immediately started crying. I took the letter feeling like it was the most precious paper I had ever held in my hands.

I felt so many things at once that I can’t even really identify them all. They were just very very big emotions. Not since we received the call that there was a heart for Hana have I felt like this. I felt intense gratitude, relief, excitement. I felt the intensity of loss, grief, suffering. I even felt love and hope and desire. Of course, I did not open the letter until Paul was home. I cried on and off throughout the rest of the day. I waited. This is one reason why I did not mention this yesterday – I still had not opened the letter.

The letter was short and heartfelt. The donor was a boy, a little younger than Hana, who died unexpectedly. He had a contagious smile and was full of life – running, jumping, chasing. He was an only child. The parents said they think every day about the recipients who received his gifts and would love to hear how they are doing. We have decided that we are not going to post any identifying details that were shared by the donor family. As much as we love and appreciate all of the readers of this blog we want to respect the privacy and anonymity of the donor family.

It has been very emotional and we are still processing it all. I am incredibly grateful that the donor family reached out first. As much as I have wanted them to know our gratitude for their choice, it just never felt like it was the right time. Not just yet. Now, it feels like the right time! In a few days, after a bit more processing, Paul and I will write a reply. I hope we can somehow find that words that might begin to express how we feel. I hope we can perhaps offer some solace knowing that their son’s heart beats within Hana and explain how much she loves life. I hope we can continue to be the best stewards of this most incredible and amazing gift for Hana.

Thank you donor family. You are in our hearts every night.

With Love,

Kathleen

A Sweet Loss

Hana continues to do really well. We are amazed and incredibly grateful everyday. She has a new sign to add to her vocabulary almost every day. She is getting sturdier and faster on her feet. She is getting better at independent play. Her drinking of breast milk has plateaued and so I have cut down on pumping once again, since there is no reason to be freezing more breast milk. We have enough to get Hana through sickness, if she were to get sick again like she was last October.

I ask myself how much longer I will pump and there seems to be much debate in this country on how long it is appropriate for kids to get breast milk. The World Health Organization says two years but I don’t know about six more months of exclusive pumping. But, until Hana will reliably drink something else, I guess I’ll keep pumping. She is starting to get interested in cow milk.

This week Hana will get IVIG therapy again. Let’s please hope it works! We heard more about the other options to lower her antibodies and they aren’t desirable. They involve plasmapheresis and medications used to treat cancer (although in a much smaller dose). Hana would have to go down to the pediatric ICU during treatment. She would have to get a central line.

Tonight, though, what is heavy on our minds and hearts is the news of another child, sweet Charlotte, who passed away on Sunday. We met her parents when Hana was in the CVICU. Charlotte was our next door neighbor here on 3 West. She was her parents only child and she was a couple months older than Hana. She was a sweet baby girl. I don’t know what else to say, but my heart is aching.

Thank you to everyone for all your support.

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104 days in the hospital, 85 days post-Berlin Heart, 77 days on the transplant list.

The Balance Of Fluid

Today Hana was fast asleep with a heart rate in the 160s – that’s way too fast. Her temperature has been normal, thank goodness. She is very sleepy even at 10:30 am. So, the doctors scratch their heads and puzzle over this latest change. The heart failure/transplant doctors are worried that fluid is backing up where it shouldn’t and the right chambers of her heart are working too hard or are in failure. The CVICU doctors wonder if she is too dehydrated, except that her fluid output (they measure exactly how much fluid she gets compared to how much they can measure that comes out – they weigh her diapers, etc.) does not suggest dehydration. Her BUN and creatinine levels (from blood work) do not suggest she is overly dehydrated.

The attending physician looks at Hana and he thinks she looks very dehydrated. Her eyes are sunken, her lips and hands and feet are very dry. He said that BUN and creatinine are not reliable tests for children. He also says that her sodium has been on the low side for a while and that can wipe her out. He orders sodium replacement and some IV saline. The heart failure Doctor requests that they use her Power PICC to check Hana’s CVPs (central venous pressure) and he talks about doing an echocardiogram to look at the right side of her heart. By the way, Hana’s CT scan came back with no problems so that is a huge sigh of relief!

After the IV saline, Hana’s heart rate crept down, her CVP which was at 1 or 0 and that came up to 5 or 6 and Hana woke up and wanted to play! The heart failure Doctor was still skeptical but he did put off doing the echocardiogram. Hana should get one soon regardless. So despite feeling very stressed for a while this morning, it turned out to be a good day. Hana even got another chest tube out. 

We spent some time in her room opening some packages and decorating while playing some Christmas music. I haven’t heard any Christmas music this season before today!

   
   

Out Of The OR

Hana is back in her room in the CVICU. The doctors and nurses are still settling her in but we did go into her room for a little while. It’s a little hard to see the thumping of her chest, which looks mechanical. For me that feels the hardest – not the three chest tubes and this pump holding her blood that comes out of her chest. Hana is doing well.

The surgeon talked to us after the surgery. He said things went well. Her heart has already reduced in size. They tried to reinflate her left lung but they were not able to. This was not really surprising since her left lung has been collapsed for so long. 

While Hana was in surgery they put in a larger (diameter) breathing tube. They put in a central line in her neck and another arterial line in the groin area. They pulled her NG tube. Hana is on a lot of medications they added epinephrine, nipride, and a few others, she is getting Nitric oxide and a blood transfusion. Her blood pressure is a little high. It will take some tinkering to get everything just right. The biggest concern is to just watch the right side of the heart – to make sure it doesn’t get overworked and to watch her bleeding.

I am relieved the surgery is over. I wish there were less concerns right now because I am exhausted and would love to sleep. Actually they said tonight would be a good night to get sleep, while Hana is still very sedated. They always say stuff like that. I didn’t listen much to that advice the last time, in February, I just thought they were crazy and just didn’t understand what it was like to go through something like this. And probably they don’t know, but they have witnessed a lot of people go through it. They were right. As Hana’s heart failure/transplant cardiologist said to me Friday, “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

When I went in next to Hana, I put my hand on her head and stood in awe. I told her she was amazing. It is amazing to me how much she has gone through, I don’t even know how to put it into words. 

The White Food Experiment

Tuesday we took Hana to Stanford for an appointment. I remember when she was still in the CVICU at Stanford and was starting to stabilize and we started hearing about what might happen next. One of the things they mentioned was that some kids stay until in the hospital until they get a heart transplant, they may have to go on ECMO or a Berlin heart. But then there are some kids that get “well enough” to go home on oral medications and some of those kids even do well for years before they need a heart transplant. There are some of those kids that even end up improving. They couldn’t tell us which scenario would be Hana because they don’t yet understand why some kids do well or even improve.

So far, Hana is one of the kids doing well on oral medications. Her echocardiagram, although not worse, is still very severe. On the outside she looks like a normal baby. She is thriving and growing and developing. The term they used was “exceptional compensation” – her heart is very, very sick looking but she appears to be doing very well. There was a pediatric cardiology fellow that joined Hana’s attending doctor for the exam. He, especially, seemed to be very impressed to look at her (after having just reviewed her latest echo).

I feel very fortunate. It’s a reminder on how fortunate we have been.

At Stanford talked a lot about weaning her from the tube and the risk that they are willing or not willing to take with the wean. She is doing well, perhaps because everything is managed so carefully right now. Once the tube is out that becomes harder. They would like her to weigh 10kg before we do anything drastic like pull the tube out and see if her hunger will make her eat. She weighed in at 8.45 kg, so she is still gaining about 7 grams a day. They decided to drop her mid-day Lasix dose because her BUN was so high, but we’ll see how she does and if she starts to retain fluid. We don’t have to take her back to Stanford for three months!

I got the impression that I need to be more patient (when it comes to her feeding progress).

On a daily basis, moment to moment, some things are still a lot of work – mostly on my mind in this category is feeding. Today I made specially prepared baby food in forms and textures that I thought would be more conducive to eating. I took them to our feeding specialist appointment, which we haven’t been going to because the therapist was on vacation. Hana didn’t want to eat the split peas. We mixed them with yogurt and then she ate some, but just a little, maybe a teaspoon. Then we tried some string cheese. Hana ate almost half a stick! It was very encouraging. The final conclusion was that she likes and trusts white food.

I really had my doubts at first – could a baby really prefer foods that are white? But the feeding specialist assured me that it was not crazy to think she only likes white foods. I guess it makes sense, breast milk is white. Yogurt is white. Mashed potatoes are white. All the foods that we have the most luck with are white. So we wrote down a list of white foods. Over the next week I am going to introduce as many white foods as possible to see if that makes a difference. So far we have yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, vanilla pudding, chicken breast, cauliflower, white asparagus, tofu, rice and white beans.

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New Bloodwork Results

This past week has been about the same. Hana had a cold with a runny nose and she really didn’t want to drink from her Milk Bear. Today she only drank two ounces although she’s been averaging 6-8 ounces. She was definitely more cranky and then I worry it is her heart. Maybe “worry” is the wrong word, perhaps its more like I’m on high alert.

One day last week, she vomited in the middle of the night and her NG tube came out. We decided to leave it out rather than place it again at one o’clock in the morning. The next morning we wanted to give her as much time free of the tube, so Paul went to work and I thought for sure I would be able to find someone to help hold Hana while I put the tube in. Well, it was getting late and I needed to give her medications (via the tube) before too much more time passed. I wasn’t able to find anyone around to help hold Hana. I was getting desperate so, of course, I called my mom.

My mom was able to instruct me on how I could hold Hana so that I could put her NG tube back in by myself. If you have not witnessed NG tube placement on a baby, I can tell you that it is very unpleasant. Hana is squirming, arms flailing, head going from side to side. She is screaming, sputtering, crying, choking and gagging. It’s awful and as the mom or the parent, it feels even worse. I had to take a few moments to take some deep breaths and psych myself up. I decided that if I couldn’t get the tube in, I was going to walk down to Kaiser and ask someone there to help me.

I swaddled Hana’s arms by her sides and then sat in an armless chair with her on my lap. I put one of my legs over hers and then had all the things I needed laid out on her high chair tray. It took a couple of attempts but I got the NG tube in and I managed a pretty nice tape job too. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of myself. It was very empowering. I had thoughts of letting her go tube free more often, for several hours a day because now I could just put the tube back in myself. I don’t know if I want to subject her to that much trauma every day. I wish I knew which was worse – having the tube in constantly or getting a break from the tube but having to endure getting it put back in more often.

Last Friday we had to get bloodwork for our upcoming appointment at Stanford on Tuesday. From what I can tell, the majority of her tests were basically “normal” or at least the same. One test – BUN (blood urea nitrogen) was twice as high as the upper range of normal at 34. I know they talked about maybe having her level be close to 30, but then last time, when it was 15, they seemed satisfied. BUN measure dehydration. They want to keep her dry because it is less load on the heart.

The other test that was different was her BNP which is B type natriuretic protein. I’ve talked about this before. It is basically a substance that is secreted by the ventricles when the heart is in failure. It was going up and up and up since Hana was discharged from Stanford. At the highest it was 1055. Now is is at 589. I think that is great, but we’ll see what the cardiology team at Stanford says. I’m still happy that it is going down instead of up! (By the way, normal levels would be below 100).

Now we just need to get her eating! I’ve been researching a tube weaning approach developed in Austria called NoTube. They have a netcoaching program where they talk with you via web conferencing every day for an hour or so for three weeks. Apparently they have a high success rate. It does cost $4,000! What really turns me off is that they seem like really pushy sales people so I have a level of mistrust. Maybe it is just a cultural thing. I don’t know.

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